Any version of BEN-HUR has a great deal to live up to with the chariot race that is the climax of the story’s action. Well, until now, but more about that later. Timur Bekmambetov’s retelling does, indeed, get the chariot race right. It’s one of the few things that are right with this curiously inert film. The other is Jack Huston as the titular character. In a film that is overwhelmingly dull, he is intensely charismatic as the Judean prince brought low by the power of occupying Rome and the betrayal of his adopted Roman brother, Messala (Tony Kebbell).
The film is smart enough to start with that chariot race, or at least the moment before it starts when the two exchange brief and vengeful words before flashing back eight years to when they were devoted to one another. Messala the orphaned grandson of a disgraced Roman taken in by the royal family where he is treated as an equal until he pitches woo as the daughter of the house, Tirzah (Sofia Black-D’Elia). Rebuffed subtly but firmly by Judah’s mother (Ayelet Zurer), Messala hies himself off to the Roman army in order to reclaim his family name and to return with status and money enough to overcome the rebuff.
Meanwhile, while waiting for him to return, life goes on for Judah, defying his mother to marry Esther (Nazanin Boniadi) a family servant, and to be appalled when Tirzah becomes part of the zealot movement attempting to force the Romans out of Judea by any means necessary. In fact, the country has become such a hotbed of rebellion, that Messala’s homecoming is marred by the political differences he and Judah discover. And, of course, one thing leads to another, with Messala choosing Rome over adopted family, and Judah becoming a galley slave and then a master charioteer.
It is inevitable that comparisons will be drawn between this version and the two previous. The silent version by Fred Niblo was awash in the sentiment of the era as well as the stark cruelty of ancient Rome, all coalescing in a chariot race that has never been done better. The William Wyler version, stilted dialogue had the grace of spectacle on a suitably epic scale, with the Ionian Sea on fire, and a cast of thousands when reproduction the glory of Rome. Here, things are far more personal, with a smattering of muddled political subtext, and to the point of claustrophobia. Coupled that with Kebbell’s Messala played in a facial and vocal monotone that bespeaks bored petulance at every turn. The narrow streets of Jerusalem and the coffin-like space of the galley may be accurate, but it is coupled with moribund energy, even in the battle scenes. Yes, we see what it’s like for a Greek bireme, or is it trireme, ram into its Roman counterpart. Yes, we see Judah almost drown as he coolly unthreads the chains that bind him to the ankles of the drowned threatening to take him with them, but the only sense of life on screen is Huston himself. He is kinetic, fierce, passionate, and thoroughly committed every moment on screen. If anyone could have saved this mess, it’s him with this dynamic quicksilver performance rife with tenderness and vitriol. Even Morgan Freeman, decked out in a crown of dreadlocks and hoary platitudes intoned with a mercurial edge in his patented voice of God takes second place to Huston
Then there’s that chariot race, a thing of genuine excitement, particularly after the lull that has come before. With its quick cuts between audience- and charioteer-eye views, and the full viciousness of the sport where even the audience is not safe is documented, it takes the breath away. In good storytelling, this would be the climax, and the denouement would be quick and strategically anti-climactic. There to tie up the loose ends and send us all home with that spectacle fresh in our minds. But this BEN-HUR continues with the crucifixion (Jesus in the person of affable Rodrigo Santoro threads his way through the film pronouncing homilies in an accent foreign to everyone else’s) and a risible resolution to the Messala-Judah conflict tacked on for, honestly, I don’t know why. It’s well-intentioned pap of the first order, but so badly done as to make us squirm in the seats on which we were so recently on the edge.
BEN-HUR, if you must, should be seen on the big screen for that chariot race. Otherwise this limp simulacrum of epic filmmaking should be eschewed in favor of that Niblo version. Trust me.